Several weeks have now passed since the Winter Olympics, and it appears most of the country has finally recovered from not watching them. However, I'm not sure America has recovered from the embarrassment that (apparently) came with them; i.e., the sudden realization that most athletes on our Olympic team didn't particularly care whether they won or lost. These people include a female snowboarder who gave up a victory in order to impress Primus fans, a redheaded halfpiper who implied that his main motivation for winning a gold medal was making conversation with Sasha Cohen, and (of course) skier Bode Miller, arguably the most apathetic major athlete of the modern era. Miller has almost an adversarial relationship with winning, which makes a lot of people upset; I did not watch the Olympics, but I did watch countless TV personalities eviscerate Bode for slacking his way to financial independence. People love to hate this guy, and it seems that hating Bode Miller has become the normative position to hold (at least if you're a sportswriter, of even just a semi-serious sports fan). And now that the Games are long over, I find myself wondering why that is (and what that means).
Usually, Americans don't hold pro athletes to particularly high social standards. Fans are very unforgiving of performative failures, but there are virtually no behavioral requirements for being beloved: For example, there are a handful of active superstars who many people still suspect might be murderers or rapists. The only thing we truly demand of pro athletes is that (a) they never associate with known gamblers, and (b) they always, always try to win. Randy Moss put a kid in the hospital and purposefully hit a cop with his Lexus, but the biggest mistake he ever made was relaxing on Vikings running plays; his critics will never forgive him for being openly lackadaisical. Ron Artest punched private citizens who paid to watch him work, but I'd still want him on my team if we were up two points with 15 seconds remaining on the clock; he'd surrender his body to protect the baseline. The greatest compliment you can give any athlete is that he would rather die than lose. And this is curious, since that particular behavior would be classified as idiotic in every other aspect of life.
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There is a famous story about Michael Jordan visiting the home of North Carolina teammate Buzz Peterson; while playing a casual game of cards with Peterson's mother, Jordan attempted to cheat while the old woman was using the bathroom. This is often used as an example of what made Jordan so awesome; he would do absolutely anything to win, regardless of the circumstance. And because the character in this anecdote is MJ, the story is charming. However, I doubt Buzz Peterson would tell this yarn if it had involved his mother and some random dude he met in Anthropology 251 (and if he did, the story would now be about that one time he brought a lunatic home for Thanksgiving break).
Jordan's diabolical competitiveness makes him more admirable, but this isn't the case for most humans. Have you ever played golf with someone who sliced a drive and threw his club into a tree? If so, I suspect you did not find yourself thinking, "Man, I really respect Andy. He really wants this." Have you ever been on a softball team with a dude who muttered to himself whenever he made an error and screamed at teammates if they happened to miss a cut-off man? Did you find this inspiring? Do you miss having beers with that guy? In fact, think about the most competitive, cutthroat, go-for-the-jugular person who currently works in your office. In all likelihood, this is someone you either (a) kind of hate, or (b) find embarrassing. A noncompetitive person can't reasonably succeed, but a hypercompetitive person looks like a buffoon to everyone who's reasonable. If you are an adult and you still cheat at card games that don't involve money, I have some bad news for you -- everyone you know thinks you're weird (and not in a good way).
The question, of course, is why that logic is never applied to any pro athlete. I am no different than anyone else: Almost all of my favorite sports personalities display an unquenchable desire to win, and I'm sure that unquenchable quality is central to my appreciation of those particular people. And the reason I feel that way is probably because they possess a personality I cannot relate to. There are those who argue that sports are important because they symbolize the middle-class laymen who spend their paychecks on season tickets, but that is not always true; sometimes they are important because they embody feelings we can't experience. Most of the time, we don't love players who are like us; most of the time, we love players who aren't like us at all.
You are not like Cal Ripken Jr. You aren't that dedicated, you aren't that intense, and you care about your job a whole lot less. Ripken might be your favorite player of the past 25 years, but the two of you have almost nothing in common. In fact, I bet there are many days when you wish you could just take a suitcase of money to Australia, drop out of society, grow out you hair and smoke cannabis all afternoon while having sex with whoever you felt like. In fact, if you had the chance, you'd probably do it tomorrow. But you know what? I bet you also think Ricky Williams is despicable.
I can't read Bode Miller's mind, but I bet the interior monologue bouncing around his cerebral cortex sounds something like this: "My job is OK, and I'm good at it. I suppose I could even be better if that was the only thing I cared about, but I'm not sure what the benefit of that would be, beyond appeasing a bunch of people I'll never actually meet. And if I can get paid this much money for being myself, why would I want to force myself to become somebody else's caricature? I'm already content with who I am."
Now, it is possible that such sentiments would make you hate Bode Miller even more.
It's also possible you hate him because you feel exactly the same way.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of "Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story" and is a senior writer for Spin magazine and columnist for Esquire. He writes for Page 2 once a month.